The KGB caused fear in the people they ‘guarded’ on tour in foreign countries. Not so with the great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. He laughed at the agents that were sent with him on his tours. He defied his ‘jailers’ and the power of the Kremlin with a wicked sense of humor. I was so fortunate not only to hear him perform, but also to see that wicked sense of humor.
Born into a long time classical music family, he was taught piano by his mother at the age of four, began his study of the cello by his father at the age of ten. At sixteen, two years after he gave his first solo performance, he was admitted to the Moscow Conservatory and five years later became a professor of the cello at the Conservatory. He won first place in three International Music Awards before he was 23 and at the age of 23 was awarded the Stalin Prize, the highest civilian honor in Russia.
Not only a great favorite of audiences, Rostropovich was in great demand among composers. He premiered over 100 cello pieces written especially for him by such composers as Dimitri Shostakovich, who was one of his teachers at the Conservatory and a life long friend. Others included Sergei Prokofiev, Leonard Bernstein, and Benjamin Britten.
From his early years Rostropovich was an outspoken critic of the lack of freedom in the USSR. When Shostakovich was dismissed as a teacher at the Conservatory for writing a piece condemning the lack of breaking out of the strict classical tradition, Rostropovich, only 21 at the time, quit the Conservatory. He believed in the concept of artists without borders and championed the cause of civil rights for everyone.
In spite of his ideals, he was permitted to tour, first in Western Europe, and then America. He toured accompanied by two KGB ‘translators’. His wife, a prominent soprano in Moscow opera, and their two daughters had to stay behind in Russia and were also under the ‘protection’ of the KGB during these tours.
One of the orchestras that had him as a guest soloists was the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of the Polish born conductor and composer, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.
The Orchestra’s home at that time was Northrop Auditorium at University of Minnesota. I did not work for the Orchestra directly; but I was the stage manager for Northrop, and as a result I was present for the week of rehearsals leading up to Rostropovich’s guesting with the Orchestra.
The first rehearsal started with Rostropovich coming on stage to the standing applause of the Orchestra members. He acknowledged their tribute with his ever present smile and a quip about not being able to follow his entrance. Then he and Skrowaczewski talking to each other in Polish. In addition to being a world class cellist, he was also a respected conductor, and there was no secret about who was really conducting when Rostropovich was involved in the pieces where he soloed. Rather than show up Skrowaczewski, he made his suggestions in Polish. Although there were times when he stopped the rehearsal to make a change himself.
Rostropovich sat down and just before the oboe sounded to have the concert master begin the tuning, he raised his cello bow and called a halt to the start of the rehearsal.
He explained that he was neglecting his manners and he wanted to introduce the two men, one standing stage right, the other stage left. ‘These are my two translators,’ he said. ‘You will see a lot of them this week. They never are too far from me in case I don’t know a word in English. That lump under their suit coats, is their translation books. I think.’
He motioned for the big man standing in the wing stage right to come on stage. ‘This is Bear,’ he said. ‘I forget his real name, but I call him Bear, the symbol of Mother Russia. Suits him, don’t you agree.’
He got no argument from anyone. The man was huge. He had dark black hair and a shadow of a black beard. He lumbered on stage and stood next to Rostropovich.
‘The problem with having the Bear for a translator is he only knows a few words in English. Show them Bear, your extent of the English language.’
It was evident the man didn’t have the slightest idea of what Rostropovich was saying in English. Rostropovich said something to him in Russian. And then waved a hand to the big man and ordered him to speak his favorite word in Russian.
‘Vodka!’ the man bellowed out.
‘Now in English.’
‘More vodka,’ Bear said. He had a big smile on his face.
Rostropovich smiled and told the man he was proud of him. Then he said something to him in Russian.
‘Nyet! Nyet!’ the Bear said shaking his head.
‘English! Speak in English!’
Rostropovich laughed. ‘Yes, it is no.’ Then he spoke to the orchestra. ‘The word for please is seldom used anymore. Now the key word is Siberia.’ He spoke softly to the Bear but he said the word Siberia loudly.
The ‘translator’ opened the left side of his suit coat and revealed a large shoulder holster with a very large gun in it.
Rostropovich said he must have been wrong about the bulge being a translation book. ‘In the Soviet Union, a translator is spelled KGB, I guess.’
He thanked the Bear and motioned him back to his position. Then he turned to the man standing in the wing on stage left.
‘Now this man, who looks like he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, I call him, Sir. Everyone calls him Sir. Even the Bear calls him Sir.
‘When I was assigned my two companions and my wife and daughers were given their group of protectors, I was shown a film of the Bear lifting weights. And a film of Sir doing his thing. He did a lot of grunting and weird noises. And he did a lot of chop motions with his hand and kicks with his feet. He destroyed numerous wood pieces and cement blocks. Bear was impressive but Sir was scary.
‘It was explained to me that these two were experts at finding the way back home to Russia. If I would get lost, say here in Minneapolis, these two would be able to find me and help me back to Russia.’
Having finished his introductions he suggested to the Maestro that the rehearsal should start. Even though it was just a rehearsal, both he and the Orchestra were in prime form. When he was doing a solo, he captivated the attention of the Orchestra. They sat taking in every note, instead of looking bored and even some leaving the stage when they were not in use.
After the break, Rostropovich once again spoke to the Orchestra. ‘I have had to promise to the Ministry of Arts that I would make sure you all knew about this cello that I am fortunate to play. Now you might look at it and listen to it’s sweet tones and think that it is the work of an old Italian Master like Stradivarius, perhaps a 1711 Duport Strad; but I can assure you, this is not the case. It was built by a Russian Master just a few years ago. It seems as though the Soviet Union has broken the secret of the old Italians and now make instruments that rival theirs.
‘And if you believe that, I break the secret that the Ministry of Agriculture will soon introduce their latest achievement, a flying pig.’ He waved to his two companions and assured them in Russian that he fulfilled his promise to the Ministry of Arts.’
Strad or Russian- made, there wasn’t anyone in the theater that didn’t believe Rostropovich could have rigged a broom handle and strings to a cigar box and still played beautiful music.
The rehearsals that week went by swiftly. My crew and I spent a lot of time in the wings watching and listening, both to the music and to the words of Rostropovich. The concerts, one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul, were received with rave reviews both by the audiences and the critics, many of whom came from cities that was not on Rostropovich’s tour.
While on this tour, Rostropovich continued to fight for his ‘artists without borders’ and the inhumanity of the U.S.S.R.. One of his most vocal fights was to release Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from his imprisonment in gulags for committing the Soviet sin of criticizing the inhumanity of Stalin. Imprisoned in 1945, Solzhenitsyn was a teacher and historian, and the latest in the line of great Russian novelists. After his sentence ended in 1953, he was sent into exile in Kazakhstan. Basically still a political prisoner. It was during this imprisonment and exile that he began to write his works.
In 1960, he sent the manuscript of his novel, A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, to a publisher. The book impressed the publisher; but also frightened him because it was so anti-Stalin. The publisher brought it to the government. Surprisingly, he was told to publish it. Premier Khrushchev thought it would be a good tool to erase the stain of Stalinism that was hindering Russia both at home and in the world. It became a best seller in Russia, although it was largely unknown in the West. It was even used as a schoolbook along with several Solzhenitsyn short stories.
But when Khrushchev was removed as premier, the stranglehold on the arts resumed, and Solzhenitsyn became a non-person in the Russia. In 1965, the KGB seized all of his writings and warned him to stop writing.. He managed to have his manuscript for what would be his most famous work, THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, smuggled into Estonia. However, by now, he had become recognized in the West as a great novelist.
He also developed a severe form of cancer, which he wrote about in his novel, THE CANCER WARD. His cancer went into remission and he lived to the age of 89 when he died of a heart attack.
Led by the very vocal Rostropovich, the cries of releasing Solzhenitsyn from exile were heard not only in Russia but around the world. It worked.
Solzhenitsyn was released from exile in 1970. Rostropovich had just come home from the tour which had included Minneapolis. Being the kind of person that backed up his demands, Rostropovich brought Solzhenitsyn into his own home. This fact was did not go unnoticed by the Soviet government and the KGB. Both artists were subject to close scrutiny and harassment by the KGB.
Both Rostropovich and his wife were forbidden to leave Russia and their musical engagements were cut back to almost nothing.
To make matters worse, in 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature, making him a household name around the world. He refused to go to Stockholm to receive the award however. He felt that if he left Russia, he would never be permitted to return. The idea of having a special ceremony in Moscow to present him the award was turned down the Swedish government who felt it might harm Soviet-Swedish relationships.
(In 1970, the Guthrie Theater, where I was now working, gained exclusive rights to the one play, (?) by Solzhenitsyn, ARTICLE 58/A PLAY. They premiered it at the end of the season and brought in a guest director, Michael Langham, who would come back the next season as the Artistic Director. The play ran in stock for almost a month to full houses. It was reviewed by critics from all over the world. It was long, sad, and had probably the largest cast ever for a Guthrie production. It was also a work of art. To my knowledge I don’t think it was ever done by any theater since then.)
In 1971, the KGB tried to assassinate Solzhenitsyn using a favorite weapon, ricin. The attempt failed. In 1974, he was exiled and sent to West Germany. From there he went to Switzerland and finally to the U.S., where he spent 17 years. In 1994 he returned to Russia.
Unlike the non-person, Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich was a considered a Russian treasure. They touted him as the greatest cellist of all time. To disgrace him as they did Solzhenitsyn was not feasible. And they could not get him to back off on his artists without borders talk and his criticism of the lack of freedom in the Soviet Republic.
Add to this, Rostropovich was more and more setting the cello aside for the baton of a conductor. He felt that with the new movement in classical music, the movement espoused by Shostakovich way back in his Moscow Conservatory days, he was one to interpret it to orchestras and audiences around the world. The government loved him as a great cellist; but as a conductor, he was just one of many.
Rostropovich was ‘allowed’ to leave Russia with his wife and children in 1974. He was not allowed to come back as a cellist or conductor anywhere in the Soviet Union. He came to America where he became Musical Director and chief conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, who never accepted living in the West with it’s ‘TV pop culture’, Rostropovich embraced life in the West.
He conducted orchestras all around the free world. His fame as a great musician increased and the smile that he was famous for never left his face; nor did his love of his fellow man.
In 1989 when the Berlin Wall was taken down, he went to Berlin and gave an impromptu cello concert along side the Wall. In 1990 he had his Russian citizenship restored. In 1991, when he saw footage of tanks outside of Moscow ready to move in during a political crisis, he got off a plane and talked himself into being allowed to join Boris Yeltsen in an effort to prevent the tanks from moving on the city. Two years later he conducted the Russian National Orchestra in Red Square during the constitutional crisis.
He lived a full life right up to his death in Moscow from intestinal cancer just prior to his 80th birthday. His death was mourned around the world. His list of achievements and awards go on and on. He will be remember as one of the greatest cellists, a great conductor, and a great humanitarian.
And for those of us who were fortunate to have met him, he will be remembered as a brave man with a wonderful sense of humor. A man who laughed in the face of the KGB.